Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Pirate goes Green

Last January I bought a Duffy 18 electric boat. Shortly after, on an evening cruise in Channel Islands Harbor, my then girlfriend wondered why of the hundreds of electric boats in the harbor none had solar panels.  Why indeed?  It seemed to me to be a natural combination. I set out to find the answer.

The first stop was Central Coast Electric Boats, the local Duffy dealer.  My thought was that surely Duffy must have tried to solarize their boats.  And that was the case according to Frank Laza, owner of Central Coast.  He said that the Duffy factory had experimented with solar at some point in the past but had abandoned the project.  He said they found that it was impractical.  So much for being able to simply buy a solar kit from Duffy.

In further conversations with Frank about Duffy’s solar project, it became clear that a couple of conditions likely doomed their project.  The first was that at the time of their experiments the available solar equipment was not as efficient as that available today.  The second had to do with the goal of their attempt.  I surmised that if they set as a goal continuous operation the size of the array of panels would greatly exceed the available space on the boat.

But what if the goal was merely to replace the charge used rather than to be able to operate the boat non-stop?  I knew that my usage consisted of at most an hour to an hour and a half daily and not always every day.  This goal would significantly reduce the needed capacity of the system.

How to quantify my actual usage?  After several unsuccessful attempts, including plugging the boat into an amp meter after what I thought was an average use and watching the draw hourly, I thought about giving up.

Chance intervened.  I happened to mention my query to my friend Rob Tryon who in the past had worked in the solar industry.  He had two words for me: battery monitor.  He explained how a battery monitor can measure the amp-hour usage, the parameter that must be known in order to be able to properly size the system.  What’s more, he recommended a model made by Victron that could not only measure amp-hour consumption but could also record a history and calculate average amp-hour usage.  Bingo!

The installation was fairly straight forward: mount the indicator on the instrument panel, install the shunt, a low-resistance resistor in series with the negative battery lead and connect them.  It was immediately apparent that the monitor provided far more useful information than just amp-hour usage.  It showed the amp draw, battery voltage, hours of operation remaining, charge cycles as well as several other very useful parameters.

Several weeks of simply using the boat followed.  After approximately 25 charge cycles the average usage centered on 50 amp-hours.  I now had the datum I needed to size the array.  This model Duffy uses a 36 volt battery; therefore I needed a charge controller able to provide that voltage to charge it.  I also had to take into account the hours of sunlight.  At 6 hours of sunlight, I calculated I needed a little over 8 amps per hour to replace the average draw.  Eight amps times the charge voltage of ~42 volts gave me around 350 watts.  I knew that over the course of a day, the sunlight falling on the panels varies because of angle of incidence, clouds, etc. and that a constant rate per hour could not be counted on.  I wanted around 500 watts in order to provide for the varying rate as well as system losses inherent in any system such as this.

I had already installed a solar system on my sailboat consisting of a pair of 135 watt panels connected in series into a multi-point power tracking controller.  This was considered state of the art in 2010 when I installed it.  In talking with Rob I found that current practice called for an MPPT controller connected to each panel and their outputs paralleled across the battery.  Wow, this project just became a lot more expensive: 4 125 watt panels and 4 36 volt MPPT controllers.  I need to say at this point that I never looked at this project as a way to save money charging my e-boat.  My preliminary budget of $600-700 would have a payoff of about 5 years at the rate we pay in the marina.  No, my motive was convenience: never having to worry about finding a place to plug in and going through the rigmarole of doing so as well as the greenness of getting off the grid.  But at the above equipment list I had exceeded my budget by over a factor of two.

Searching for the controllers, I found one manufactured by Genasun that provided the right output.  In addition, it would accept an input voltage that would allow two standard 12 volt (17 volt nominal) panels to be connected in series.  This meant I could reduce the number of controllers from 4 to 2.  When I mentioned this to Rob, he not only said he could get the controllers but also that he was upgrading the panels on his boat and would sell me the old ones.  Score!  The only drawback was that his panels were 100 watt units, but at the price he quoted I couldn’t pass it up.

So there you have it.  I finished installing the second pair of panels and controller this last Monday.  Monday night I “burned” 55 amp-hours using the boat.  At 5:30 yesterday afternoon the battery was fully charged.  Last night we used 72 amp-hours, traveling 5 ¼ nautical miles in an hour and a half at full throttle with the stereo blasting.  I checked the state of charge 45 minutes ago with the sun directly overhead (max charge conditions) and the system was outputting 8 amps and the battery was 35% charged.  It will be at 100% around 5:30-6:00 tonight.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Making Diamonds at the Bar

A rare overcast day here in the 805 with winds out of the NW at less than 7 knots, 69 degrees in the cockpit.

The weather was not as settled in Neah Bay as I was contemplating an overnight single-handed passage to Astoria, Oregon.  Passage Weather was showing a gale on the outside with waves to 20 feet, not a pleasant situation to be in on an unfriendly coast.  I say unfriendly for the reason that there are few to no places to go to get out the nasty weather.  The only safe harbors between Neah or more accurately Cape Flattery and Astoria are Grey’s Harbor and Willapa Bay, neither of which are particularly easy to enter in heavy weather, nor very close.  My projected track line to Astoria was a little over 160 nautical miles with an estimated travel time of almost 35 hours.  The aforementioned harbors would have only cut a few hours off the travel time, not worth it.

I would be remiss in failing to mention that Astoria isn’t all that easy to enter either.  It lies several miles up the Columbia River requiring a crossing of the notorious Columbia bar.  The bar has claimed many a mariner.  The US Coast Guard has boats that are specifically designed for rescue work on the bar.  Youtube is replete with dramatic videos of boats attempting the crossing in huge breaking waves humped up by the shallow water at the mouth of the river.  It can be a very scary place.

When we were in Shearwater, BC, I met the crew of a luxury motor-yacht, home ported in Portland, Oregon.  Figuring the skipper was familiar with the bar crossing I began plying him with drinks in the Marina Bar.  After a couple of hours and more than a few beers, I staggered out with several cocktail napkins covered in diagrams showing poorly-marked shoals, strange currents and optimum track lines under various states of the tide.

I was thinking acutely of the conditions under which I obtained the information as well the condition I was in when I transcribed it into the nav computer as I contemplated the arrival and crossing.  Throughout that evening the one thing that was mentioned more than any other was how critical the arrival time was.  The interaction of the tide and the seas on the bar can either make or break a crossing.  An hour before slack high water was optimum.

I spent the time waiting for favorable weather working on boat projects.  My one foray into the village was to replenish the beer supply.  I was surprised to discover that Neah Bay is a dry village.  The reaction to my inquiry about the nearest liquor store and my apprehension concerning the coming passage served to discourage any further exploration.

My noisy Neah neighbors

It was five days before the wind, waves and tide looked favorable to cross the bar.  We left the harbor an hour before sunup.  A four foot sea on the nose met us north of Waadah Is., the only wind that of our passage.  Exiting the channel between Tatoosh Is. and the Cape, the seas were a steady eight feet out of the northwest.  Our track took us to a point 30 miles offshore and roughly 50 miles south.  I looked forward to the 40 degree turn to the SE moving the waves from the rear quarter to almost dead astern.  Fortunately, an afternoon breeze kicked up enough to raise the main and steady the ride.

After sundown, I went on the 20 minute watch schedule.  This consists of going topside and scanning the horizon, looking for traffic and checking the rig, then going below to check the radar and plotter, setting the timer for 20 minutes and attempting to get some sleep.  When the timer goes off the routine repeats.  Now it may be that if one were to get into this schedule for a day or two it might be a viable system for safely single-handing in a sea lane but I found that prior to my normal bedtime it was impossible to get any sleep and after, almost impossible to be alert and make rational decisions.  Needless to say, this only made the anticipation of our arrival at the Columbia River more acutely stressful.

At some point in the early morning I was awakened by an insistent beeping.  It took me a few moments to surface from a deep sleep to find the autopilot had lost track and the boat was wandering.  The adrenaline shot brought me fully alert and I rushed upstairs to find the wind had shifted from the starboard aft quarter to dead on the port beam.  We had been motor-sailing with a full main and Miss Mercedes.  Almost at a gybe I disengaged Otto to bring us back to our track.  The wind, now out of the east had freshened to 20 knots.  I pulled the throttle back to an idle and set the jib.  The boat quickly accelerated to almost 8 knots and I killed the engine, enjoying the sound of the wind in the rigging and the burble of our wake.

After a while I went below to check the plotter.  We were almost three hours ahead of schedule.  By this time it was a little after 4 AM and more sleep being out of the question, I fixed coffee and went back topside to enjoy the sail.  An hour later the wind began to abate.  By 5:30, I started the engine and took in the jib.  As I was updating the log I saw it was time to switch fuel tanks.  With the sun rising over mountains the wind continued to drop and by 8, was blowing 10 knots.  Still a couple of hours ahead of our arrival time, I throttled back until we were making a little over 4 knots.

Ten o’clock came and with Cape Disappointment (what an apt name) fully in view, I could see 10-12 foot waves breaking on the bar immediately to the north of the entrance.  A Coast Guard vessel was maneuvering in the area as we cleared the north jetty and Buoy 9 hove into view.  Remembering Captain John’s advice, I made for a point just to the south of the can and desiring to get across the bar quickly I throttled up to 2700 rpms.  Big mistake!  About 200 yards past the buoy, the engine died and we were adrift in the channel.  To make matters worse a vessel showing dredge daymarks was slowly heading straight for us.  Furthermore, we were right below the USCG Traffic Control Center.  The last thing I wanted was to declare an emergency, triggering an expensive assist followed by a thorough Coast Guard inspection, probably incurring fines.

I leapt below to begin the process of getting the engine running again.  My hope was that the pickup tube at the bottom of the tank was clogged which would mean all I had to do was change tanks and bleed the system, a 5-10 minute task.  My fear was that the fuel filters were clogged which would necessitate the filter elements be changed, something that takes an hour if all the elements are bad.  As I was switching the manifold we were hailed on the VHF by the dredge.  I indicated I was working a fuel issue and he offered to avoid us.  Thanks, captain for the favor.

Ten minutes passed and we were still adrift.  By this time I was really sweating.  Still no coughs out of the engine and the scare box was indicating we were now north of the channel.  Glancing at the plotter I could see we were getting close to a bar.  I decided to lower the anchor to a bit off the bottom hoping it would hold us off the bar if I couldn’t get the engine going.  Immediately upon gaining the cockpit the TCC hailed, inquiring if we needed assistance and letting me know we couldn’t anchor in the channel.  I told them I wasn’t anchoring but had lowered it as a safety precaution while I worked on the fuel system.  They seemed mollified and I continued with the engine.

A few minutes passed and I was beginning to think I might have to declare an emergency when the engine coughed a couple of times, ran for 10 seconds and quit.  A glimmer of hope!  Another minute and Miss Mercedes was happy.  I almost collapsed with relief.  After the anchor was back in its chock I turned towards the TCC, bowed, put the boat in gear, set Otto on course and motored towards Astoria.  An hour later we were tied to the dock in the West Basin.  What a passage!


Monday, December 9, 2013

Trouble with the wildlife

-Hotspur, Henry IV Part 1, Shakespeare

The sun is shining, the wind is howling out of the east strong enough to make the dock lines creak and the rigging sing.  Cool too, 50 degrees in the cockpit.  SCAs posted for the Channel so the flock is definitely in the pasture.  I’m huddled below with the radio and the heater.

So what’s with the Shakespeare quote, you ask?  Are you still catching us up on the voyage?  And the answer to the last question is, not today.  There’s a story with the first one.

The verbiage above comes in the first act when several conspirators are plotting against the king.  Hotspur is suggesting using a starling as an audio weapon in an attempt to drive him crazy.  With those words, old Will and a willing groupie with too many dollars and not enough sense unleashed a nasty pest upon the North American continent and specifically Channel Islands Harbor.  I’m talking the common starling, AKA European starling, and to those of a scientific bent, Sturnus vulgaris.  Back in the late Nineteenth Century, Eugene Schieffelin and some other mis-guided wealthy members of an organization dedicated to introducing foreign species into North America for economic reasons decided it would be cool to introduce all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare plays.  So in 1891, they released several dozen European starlings in Central Park.

I wonder if they even read the play.  I mean the plotters were proposing the bird be used as an irritant.  Maybe they thought the starling song would be a beautiful addition to our environs, totally missing the irritant thing.  Now don’t get me wrong, starlings are pretty amazing birds.  They are related to mynahs and can mimic other birds.  They are very social and gather in flocks termed murmurations that in flight are astounding to watch.  They eat insects which is almost always a good thing.

But they also eat fruit and that’s not a good thing for a couple of reasons.  The berry farmers around here hate them as they cause hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to their crops.  It also causes their guano to be acidic and staining.  Municipalities have spent millions dealing with the maintenance issues caused by the birds.  Remember they are a very gregarious species so it’s never just one bird, it’s hundreds.

Which brings me to what initiated this missive.  I got back to the boat one day and found the port deck and the sail cover covered in colored bird poop.  Now I haven’t told you yet of the new paint on the boat.  It has gotten a very expensive paint job during the stay here.  So I got out the deck brush and went to work.  I realized after a few minutes that I needed greater fire power so I broke out the pressure washer.  Two hours later the boat was clean but the deck was stained in a few places.  I was not happy.  The next day same thing, port deck nailed with colored poop, two more hours with the pressure washer and another stain or two.

After the third day I was getting pretty steamed and very puzzled.  I knew it had to be a flock of birds but had no idea what they were as I hadn’t seen them.  Finally, one evening I was returning when I saw about twenty little black birds clinging to the stays and shrouds above the upper spreaders.  My first thought was, how cool is that as they engaged in pecking order games on the shrouds, chirping and…defecating.  Oh no!  It finally dawned on me.  I ran to the boat, grabbed the nearest shroud and gave it a good shake.  They all took off at once, circling and wheeling and then realighting on the rigging.  Another shake and they again took flight some deciding that maybe the neighbor’s mast might be a little more accommodating.  At that point I realized that of the fifteen or so sail boats I share this basin with the little birds only preferred 5 or 6.  Finally, all the birds, maybe 150 from my and the other boats, left the rigging and disappeared into the nearby palm trees.  It was sundown.

It took several more days to observe their arrival in groups of 3 to 5 out of the east, looking like little black missiles with wings showing up approximately 40 minutes before sundown.  Then they roost in the rigging.  And then at sundown they repair to their nests in the palms.  And they seem to prefer the taller masts nearest the trees.

But what were they and how to dissuade them from using Blue Note as a pre-nighttime outhouse?  I only have one bird book aboard, Guide to the Birds of Alaska by R H Armstrong.  Not expecting much I dove in and after an hour the closest culprit looked to be the European starling.  The bill and the body shape were right but the ones in my rigging didn’t have spots.  More time with Wikipedia confirmed them and provided their history, behavior, habitat, etc.  I now knew who the enemy was, a strawberry-gobbling, gregarious, intelligent, fastidious, invasive bird with no known predators.

What to do?  Apparently some maintenance departments have had some success stringing nets over those items needing protection, not a solution for me.  Shiny objects strung in the rigging initially seemed to work but only for several days.  To date, the only effective method for preventing deck damage has been to stand by, waiting for a bird to land and then shaking the rigging until they fly off.  This is kept up until all the berries have been processed or sundown occurs.  Miss a day for whatever reason and two hours of fun with the pressure washer ensues.  All is not bad though as I have been providing amusement for all my live-aboard neighbors.  They understand after I explain it, but I can see the visual humor of seeing an old, fat hippie randomly jumping out and shaking a shroud.  I call it bird doody.  Thanks a lot Will.


Monday, November 11, 2013

Catch Up Phase Two

What a difference a week makes.  This is the third or fourth day in a row we’ve gotten June weather in October, overcast, fog horns blowing, burning off in the afternoon.  The anemometers are lazily rotating, the mercury at 59, kind of SoCal’s equivalent of a wet, sleety fall day in Valdez, the kind of day that would motivate me to tackle the mental work of composing one of these entries rather than going outside and doing chores.  However, it would be dishonest to imply the weather is my motivation.  I mean, after all this is a nice summer day in the Deez.  And I have many, many jobs I could and should be doing.  No, it’s because those jobs are not ones I really want to do and this one just happens to be a little higher on the desirability scale.

Procrastination was not on my mind on that sunny morning at the end of August in Sidney Harbour three years ago.  I was focused on several jobs among them the aforementioned refrigeration replacement as well as resolving the alternator issue.  I needed a new mainsail cover, new cockpit cushions and I was looking at installing solar panels.  In addition there were numerous maintenance items (it’s a boat, duh) I had managed to defer.  I figured to be in one place for at least a month but first I had to clear back into the US.

Years ago my parents had several close friends who retired to the San Juan Islands from California and they used to visit them either on their way to visit us in Alaska or on the way back.  Hearing about it for years and never having been, I picked Friday Harbor to reenter.  We arrived early in the afternoon.  The harbormaster directed us to a spot I was unable to locate but right in front was a dock with a huge sign that said US CUSTOMS in big red letters.  We headed there.  After tying up on the inside of the dock I collected the boat papers, passport, Jazz’ health certificate and shot records and walked the 75 feet to the kiosk that bore the customs sign.  It was locked up but there was a phone without a keypad on an outside wall.  I picked it up and it rang and rang but no answer.  I tried the posted 800 number and that person asked me where I was and took my cell number.  She called back a few minutes later to say an agent would be in the office in 10-15 minutes.  I sat down to wait.  After forty minutes of no show I called back.  She said she would check on it and get back to me.  A minute later the phone on the wall began ringing.  Another woman asked me where I was.  My first reaction was to employ some snark.  Instead I explained where I was and where the boat was.  She insisted I needed to move the boat to the outside of the dock and come to the office.  I explained I was single-handed and it would be a pain to move the boat especially since it was only 15 feet from where she wanted it.  She relented and then said her office was actually on the beach behind the harbormasters office and that I should go there.  I went.

I was crossing the parking lot when a guy in a black uniform and a black Glock came up to me and demanded to know where the boat was.  I detected an attitude but not knowing who he was and trying to be helpful I said he could see it and took a step around him to show him where it was when he barked, “Don’t move!”  I took a breath and calmly explained it was tied to the customs dock.  He then wanted to know why I hadn’t followed his instructions.  Totally puzzled at this point I said I had never seen him before and that I was simply trying to check back into the US.  Another barked, “Follow me” and he turned on his heel and strode back to the door I had seen him come out of.  Not knowing what was to come I was more than a little nervous as he deposited me in front of a woman behind a computer terminal.  She began the check in procedure and I calmed down.  Throughout this the guy was eying me closely but when he heard the name of my boat he visibly relaxed.  After looking at my passport and certificate of documentation and a few questions on ports of call and purchases, she asked me for $27.50.  She obviously had gotten my look of dumb-foundedness before as she whipped out a four-fold brochure and underlined some verbiage on an inside fold, explaining the law.  She helpfully added they took plastic.  I was silent for a beat until the guy with the Glock stiffened.  I hastily explained my wallet was on the boat as I wasn’t aware of the law and my need for payment.  I offered to get it and reached for my docs.  Apparently once The Procedure has begun the agent not only can’t release documents but must not lose sight of you because in an exasperated tone she said she would accompany me and got up off her stool.  I guess I was looking pretty shady because Glock guy jumped up too.  I attempted to notch the tension down by asking the directions to pizza, the supermarket, etc., on the walk out to the boat.  Glock guy picked right up on it, giving directions to his favorite joints and volunteering that he had mistaken me for someone on another boat.  They opened the kiosk, I grabbed my wallet.  While waiting to have my card swiped I asked if they needed to see Jazz’ stuff.  Nope.  Did they need to look at the boat?  Nope. I related the very short version of my experience with Canadian Customs, that they hadn’t looked at my passport.  Glock guy puffed up and snorted they had no idea of what was important at borders.  It took all the control I possessed to grab the docs, my new entry stamp and get out of earshot before cracking up.

The ICE idiots aside I liked Friday Harbor.  We spent two nights.  While there I made arrangements for a month-long berth in Port Angeles.  Port Townsend was my first choice but because of a tall ship extravaganza there was no room at the inn.

About 12 miles NE of Port Angeles we encountered an armada of government vessels, both Coast Guard and Navy.  One of the 40 foot aluminum high speed USCG craft came up to us, hailed us on the VHF and told us to either speed up or slow down to maintain a 1500 yard separation from the outbound nuclear sub.   Sure enough the black sail of the sub accompanied by a naval support vessel and the rest of the CG cutters could now clearly be seen.  We sped up.

It took over a week to realize picking Port Angeles was a bad choice regarding the work I wanted to do.  It has an extensive marine service industry with a wide array of businesses.  Thing is it’s geared for ships and large boats.  I couldn’t find anybody to do either the refrigeration or canvas work and the metals vendor was several miles on the other side of town.  By this time I had ordered a replacement alternator as well as the solar panels and accessories.  While waiting for them I was able do a couple of the maintenance items and contacted a small vessel refrigeration specialist in Bellingham.  We made an appointment for the following week.

In spite of my disappointment I enjoyed my stay in Port Angeles.  They have bike lanes and buses with bike racks so I was able to get around even with the long hills inland.  Sharing the marina parking lot was a bar and grill that featured live music so I could walk across the lot to get into trouble and more importantly walk back.  There’s a good pizza joint and a supermarket even if it was a Safeway.  I even had visitors.  It was great to see an old and dear friend from my earliest days in Valdez.  My cousin drove my mother over from Renton and we spent a pleasant afternoon catching up.

During the stay in Sitka, a slip neighbor had recommended a refrigeration tech in Bellingham.  Turned out to be an excellent reference.  We traveled the 57 miles across the Strait of Juan de Fuca under a cloudless sky and no wind. The naval jets out of the NAS on Whidbey Island entertained us all the way past Anacortes.  We finally got a favorable breeze in the Bay of Bellingham.

I rekindled my love for the city of Bellingham.  David, the owner operator of Sea Freeze had a last minute family emergency and had to delay our appointment until the next week.  While waiting I found a canvas shop that was able to make a mainsail cover for Blue Note.  I got to visit Bellingham Kite Boards, an outfit I had been doing business with over the net for years and, what a ya know, I bought a new 12 meter which just happened to be on sale.  Great pizza, decent fish and chips all within biking distance is always a winner with me.  The harbor staff were outstanding, even to the point of providing transportation to Freddies (Fred Meyer, a supermarket for you PNW-challenged) and back because of a recent bus rerouting deprived the harbor of service.  David came by, removed the old compressor, plumbed in the new one and came back the next day for final check.

We left that afternoon, spent the night in Watmough Bay, Lopez Island, and crossed the Strait the next day.  In roughly the same area of the sub encounter I noticed a gray boat like the orange USCG fast boats alter course to intercept us.  As it got closer it was obvious it was some sort of government vessel and when it got within hailing distance an armed uniform informed me they were Customs Enforcement and wanted to know where I was coming from and my destination.  Jazz finally woke up and went into his “who’s there?” bark.  At that sound the ICE boat altered to parallel us and the uniform wanted to know when last we had been in Canada.  Throughout this Jazz is doing his big dog bark and the uniform is conferring with the driver.  Finally they decided I wasn’t an illegal immigrant and they sped off.  Jazz got some steak scraps for his job well done.  We topped off at the fuel dock, settled with the harbormaster and tied up in our old slip for an early morning departure for Neah Bay.

By now we were back into the short-day season and even though the days were longer than in Alaska this time of year, it meant planning travel accordingly.  We were underway for an hour when a beautiful sunrise began abaft.  The 55 miles passed uneventfully mostly motorsailing in the NW wind.

Well, it’s been several weeks since I’ve worked on this so I will post it and continue the trip down the west coast later.